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The Zapotec, whose ancient culture flourished for over a millennium in southwest Mesoamerica, have been the topic of a diversity of studies primarily because their unique history provides clues about the origins of civilization and how urban societies evolve. As with other ancient societies, focus on their archaeological record has been key for inferring certain aspects of human behavior and cultural development, such as technology, subsistence, exchange, residential patterns, scribal traditions and political organization (Kowalewski et al. 1989; Marcus and Flannery 1996; Winter 1989; Urcid 2001, 2005). One aspect of their material culture has received special attention, the so-called Zapotec urn, a type of ceramic vessel with anthropomorphic or zoomorphic effigies attached. Because these artifacts are rich in iconographic information, their study has offered an unparalleled source of information on ancient Zapotec society.

Zapotec Urns

The majority of Zapotec urns are associated with mortuary contexts, and in particular tombs, where they were placed in different positions relative to the structure: on the roof, in front of the entrance and in niches above the entrance [Figure 1] (Saville 1904: 51), or within the tomb itself, in the antechamber, in wall niches [Figure 2] and on the floor. However, some urns have been found as offerings related to buildings, placed under stucco floors or in cache boxes near salient features of the structure.

The urns vary in height from 10 centimeters up to one meter, and many are made in series, frequently consisting of sets of three, four or five [Figure 3]. Most ceramic objects found in the valley of Oaxaca are fabricated from a fine grey paste and many have applications of red pigment [Figure 4] that have been identified as either cinnabar or hematite (Alderson 2001; Ramick and Sellen 2002). Although rare, some examples are painted white or polychrome. Most urns are found empty, but perhaps they originally contained some evanescent substance that has disappeared with time. A few urns have been found containing the remains of bird bones (Rickards 1938: 149; Caso, Bernal and Acosta 1967: 127), and one vessel associated with an offering under a temple was full of green stone figures (Caso and Bernal 1952: 158). The urns are rarely found isolated, and can be associated with other ceramic forms or items such as obsidian blades (Caso, Bernal and Acosta 1967: 120). Furthermore, there is a great deal of evidence for reuse of the urns, given that many are broken and worn when discovered in situ.

Studies on the topic of the urns have been published since the early twentieth century, but to date there is little consensus on what the effigies symbolize and how they relate to ancient religion and ritual. Early interpretations held the position that the effigies represent gods from a complex pantheon (Caso and Bernal 1952; Boos 1966). Joyce Marcus made a sharp break with this paradigm when she questioned the existence of deities among the ancient Zapotec, maintaining instead that the effigies represent royal ancestors wearing supernatural guises (Marcus 1983; Marcus and Flannery 1996). Current research demonstrates a correlation between the entities in the Zapotec calendar day-name list and the complexes of masks and costumes worn by the figures displayed on the urns (Sellen 2002a, 2002b; Urcid 2001, 2004, 2005). We have argued that the entities in the calendar lists are similar to those known in other Mesoamerican cultures that are considered fundamentally pantheistic, suggesting that they may be considered deities. In particular, our studies have shown that the deities displayed on the urns are the same patron deities that correspond to the Mesoamerican layered conception of the cosmos, 9 for the underworld and 13 for the sky-world. The two important series of patron deities play a central role in Mesoamerican religion and ritual, and are inextricably linked with time reckoning and divination. In summary, our position is that Zapotec effigy vessels represent ancestors who are impersonating deities represented in the ancient calendar.

Woven into the debate on symbolism are explanations about what the particular function of the vessel attached to the effigy may have been. Early interpretations supposed that they held cremated remains (Chavero 1940: 404-405). However there is no archaeological evidence the Zapotec cremated their dead and placed human remains in the vessels. To date many of the hypotheses put forth about function lack the supporting archaeological data and thus remain speculative extensions of the iconographic and symbolic interpretations. Clearly, to address any of these questions adequately it is necessary to consider all the data available and in a comprehensive way.

The Database

The catalogue of Zapotec Effigy Vessels is a versatile tool designed to present the most up to date information on the urns in a way that is inter-relational and easy to access. An on-line catalogue of artifacts is a dynamic entity, one that can be constantly updated, corrected and added to as new information comes forth. This format avoids the pitfalls of previously published works where errors of information have gone uncorrected and invariably compounded through repeated citation.

With few exceptions, the catalogue uses line drawings instead of photographs. Drawing an object creates a mental map of the artifact in the mind of the illustrator, and in my experience this is the best way to understand its iconography. The urns in this catalogue were drawn from sight in museum collections, or alternatively, copied from photographs. Preference was given to the first method. Every effort was made to produce illustrations that faithfully reproduce the originals, but I must stress that these are merely my interpretations. Line drawing was chosen as a method of rendering because of it's clarity in representing forms, and to be consistent with the methods of other authors, notably that of Javier Urcid, who has compiled a corpus of over 1200 examples of ancient Zapotec artistic expression, including carved stones, stucco friezes and mural painting (cf. Urcid 1994, 2001, 2005).

The objects for the catalogue were selected in accordance with requirements I established for my dissertation. In particular, I needed to document artifacts from controlled archaeological excavations, as well as the ones that Caso and Bernal, in their all-encompassing study Urnas de Oaxaca (1952) had used as diagnostic to form their categories. To this base of about 100 artifacts, I added many that had never been published, thus expanding my possibilities of analysis. Other criteria were used, and I selected pieces if they illustrated examples of glyphs or if they had been dated using chronometric techniques. At the time of this writing the database has 530 entries.

Fake Zapotec Urns

Fake Zapotec urns are pervasive in almost all private and public holdings of pre-Columbian artifacts. Consequently, most museum and art catalogues from the last century are plagued with these creations. In research one can avoid the issue of fakes simply by relying on material from controlled excavations. Unfortunately, this method would leave us with a very small sample to make informed comparisons. For example, in Caso's and Bernal's study (1952), there are only 120 examples with firmly established archaeological contexts, and of these many are duplicates owing to the ancient practice of manufacturing urns in matched sets. Since that publication archaeological excavations have produced more material, but the bulk of the corpus is without established provenance and permeated with fakes.

It is an understatement to say that these faux creations are a serious problem. The validity of many studies have been thrown into doubt by their presence, and summarily crumble on their foundations once it is proven their findings were based on forms that did not exist in antiquity. For this reason it was necessary to confront the issue before presenting another catalogue with the same problem as its predecessors.

Fortunately, our ability to identify fake Zapotec urns has been greatly increased by the testing of various collections using the relative technique thermoluminescence (TL)[1]. The TL results have provided a large comparative sample that can be used to distinguish between genuine and bogus material using the primacy of the eye, so we need not always rely on the expensive testing procedure. Some of these distinguishing features are the quality of the paste, the overall workmanship, the presence or absence of root imprints on the surface, and the general iconographic congruency of all the elements. In short, the thorny problem of fakes in the corpus has been addressed by using a combination of relative dating and visual identification, but more extensive testing is still required.

Explanation of the fields

An understanding of how the fields are ordered yields the best results when searching the database:

Key (clave)

The finder key consists of an acronym of the institution's name combined with the object's catalogue number. Since the key was originally conceived of in Spanish, the nomenclature may not correspond to the name of the institution in other languages (see Nomenclature). In general I used the first three letters of an institution's name, for example Museo Nacional de Antropología = MNA, plus the catalog number of the object: 6-000, thus the identifying key is MNA 6-000. In some cases I did not know an object's catalogue number, but I knew the location and the provenance, thus: MRO Tomaltepec. When I obtain the catalogue information for these objects this temporary designation will be changed. With private collectors I have used shortened versions of their last name, PEÑA for Peñafiel, and when it is unknown who they are, simply CPA (Colección Particular Anónima or Anonymous Private Collection), numbered consecutively.

Present Location (Ubicación actual)

This field constitutes the last known location for an object. Because archaeological artifacts are bought, sold, traded, loaned and stolen, between museums and individuals, this section is particularly dynamic. I have maintained MFR as the location of objects in the now defunct Frissell Museum in Mitla, Oaxaca. These artifacts are presently stored in the town of Mitla under the watchful eye of the INAH. New plans for a Museum are currently being drawn up.

Collection (Colección)

In chronological order the full names of the collectors who acquired the objects followed by the year they were acquired. Usually the date after the first collector's name is the date the piece was found. The subsequent dates refer to the time when the object was transferred from one person to another, or to an institution.

Register (Registro)

Any number that is associated with the object, as often an artifact has more than one registration and/or catalogue number.

Provenance (Procedencia)

The origin of an object is generally based on published information. With many of the objects from nineteenth century collections I was able to procure provenance information from the original collector's inventories. Other cases are reconstructions. For example, if an object belongs to a series, but only one of that series has a reported provenance, then I apply the same origin to all the artifacts.

Measurements (Medidas)

Measurements are given in centimeters. The first number is always height unless otherwise specified; the second number is width, and the third is maximum diameter.

Color (Color)

The color refers to the color of the fired clay as well as any applied pigments. I understand that this should constitute two distinct categories, and in the future I will separate them. With many of the objects I illustrated it was not possible to view them except via black and white photographs, and therefore impossible to determine their color.

Ceramic Phase (Fase)

The chronology for Zapotec urns continues to be modified as more data from controlled excavations is introduced. I have opted for using Lind's proposal of the phase names in Zapotec (Lind 1992) over Caso's and Bernal's earlier scheme of using the designation "Monte Albán" with roman numerals, even though I occasionally make reference to the previous nomenclature. Recently a revised chronology based on Lind's proposal was published (Winter 2004: 29, fig. 2; Urcid 2005: 5, table 1:1), however as of the date of this writing I have not made all the corresponding changes to the catalogue. The main difference in the revised chronology is the Pitao phase (200 d.C. - 500 d.C.) that is now separated into two phases, Tani (200 d.C. - 350 d.C.) and Pitao (350 d.C. - 500 d.C.), with Tani corresponding to the Transition phase. Presently, the objects in this dual phase are distinguished by the adjectives "early" or "late". Where possible I include published opinions of an object's chronology.

Reference (Referencia)

This category cites the publications where the object has appeared.

Commentaries (Comentarios)

I have tried to keep comments to the minimum unless there is something unusual about the piece, in terms of its history in collections, its relation to other objects or its iconography.

Glyphs (Glifos)

When an artifact has glyphic information it is noted. Often a Zapotec urn will have multiple glyphs and dispersed numerals of day-name coefficients so an attempt is made to identify these elements.

Dating (Fechamiento)

In many cases Thermoluminiesence (TL) tests have been carried out on the objects in the catalogue but often the results remain unpublished by the authors. Therefore, where possible I have added this information for reference.

A note on the use of materials

The materials contained in this archive are freely available to all interested parties for scholarly study. For publication use of the drawings, permission must be requested in writing from the author:

Adam T. Sellen Ph.D
Centro Peninsular en Humanidades y Ciencias Sociales, UNAM (CEPHCIS)
Ex-Sanatorio Rendón Peniche, Calle 43 por 44 y 46, Col. Industrial
C.P. 97150, Mérida, Yucatán, México
Tel. (999) 922-8446 al 47- 48 (ext. 128)

I invite your thoughts on how to improve the database, and will welcome any new material, information or corrections that can be provided.


Alderson, Samantha
2001 A Technological Study of the Painted Surfaces of Zapotec Urns from Xoxocotlán, Abstract published on the internet for the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works,
Boos, Frank
1966 The Ceramic Sculptures of Ancient Oaxaca,
A.S. Barnes, New York.
Caso, Alfonso and Ignacio Bernal
1952 Urnas de Oaxaca,Memoria no. 2,
Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico.
Chavero, Alfredo D.
1940 México a través de los siglos. Tomo I: Historia antigua y de la conquista.
Gustavo S. López Editoriales, Mexico, D.F.
Goedicke, Christian, Sabine Henshel y Ursel Wagner
1992 Thermolumineszenzdatierung und Neutronenaktivierungsanalyse von urnengefassen aus Oaxaca, Baesler-Archiv, Neue Folge, Band XL: 65-86.
Kowalewski, Stephen A., Gary M. Feinman, Laura Finsten, Richard E. Blanton y Linda M. Nicholas
1989 Monte Albán's Hinterland, Part II. Prehispanic Settlement Patterns in Tlacolula, Etla, and Ocotlán, The Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico, Vol. I
Memoirs of the Museum of Anthropology no. 3
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
Lind, Michael D.
1992 Unos problemas con la cronología de Monte Albán y una nueva serie de nombres para las fases
Notas Mesoamericanas,No. 13: 177-192
Universidad de las Américas, Puebla.
Marcus, Joyce and Kent Flannery
1996 Zapotec Civilization
Thames and Hudson, New York.
Marcus, Joyce
1983 Rethinking The Zapotec Urn, in The Cloud People: Divergent Evolution of the Zapotec and Mixtec Civilizations (Flannery y Marcus, eds.): 144-148.
Academic Press, New York.
Ramick, Bob and Adam Sellen
2002 Analysis of pigments on Zapotec urns, unpublished study using scanning electron microscopy/energy dispersive spectroscopy (SEM/EDS).
Royal Ontario Museum, Canada.
Rickards, Constantine
1938 Monograph on Ornaments on Zapotec Funerary Urns, Journal de la Societe des Americanistes, Nuovelle Serie, Tomo 30 (1): 147-165.
Saville, Marshall H.
1904 Funeral Urns from Oaxaca, The American Museum Journal, Vol. 4: 51-60.
New York.
Sellen, Adam
2002a Las vasijas efigie zapotecas: ancestros como personificadores de divinidades, unpublished doctoral thesis on file at the Central Library of the "Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México", Mexico City.
2002b Storm-God Impersonators from Ancient Oaxaca,Ancient Mesoamerica 13 (1): 2-19.
Vanderbilt University, Nashville.
Shaplin, P. D. y David Zimmerman
1978 Thermoluminescence and Style in the Authentication of Ceramic Sculpture from Oaxaca, Mexico, Archaeometry, Vol. 20 (1): 47-54.
Winter, Marcus
2004 Monte Albán: su organización e impacto politico, in Estructuras política en el Oaxaca antiguo, Memoria de la Tercera Mesa Redonda de Monte Albán (Nelly Robles, editor): 27-59.
INAH, Mexico.
1989 From Classic to Post-Classic in Pre-Hispanic Oaxaca, in Mesoamérica after the decline of Teotihuacan, A.D. 700-900 (Richard A. Diehl y Janet Berlo, eds.): 123- 130.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington D.C.
Urcid, Javier
2005 Zapotec scribal tradition: knowledge, memory, and society in ancient Oaxaca,
published on the internet:
2004 Las urnas del barrio zapoteca de Teotihuacan, Arqueología Mexicana, 64 (II): 54-57.
2001 Zapotec Hieroglyphic Writing, Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology, No. 34.
Dumbarton Oaks, Washington D.C.
1994 Un Sistema de Nomenclatura para los Monolitos Grabados y los Materiales con Inscripciones de Monte Albán, in Monte Albán. Estudios Recientes, Contribución No. 4 del Proyecto Especial Monte Albán 1992-1994, edited by Marcus Winter, pp. 53-79.
Oaxaca, Mexico.


1 - In total there have been 460 objects analysed. The TL testing has been carried out on the collections in the following Institutions:

  1. Peabody Museum, Cambridge, U.S.A., 6 objects (Shaplin and Zimmerman 1976, unpublished).
  2. Saint Louis Art Museum, U.S.A., 117 objects (Shaplin and Zimmerman 1978).
  3. Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada, 36 objects (Shaplin and Zimmerman 1978, unpublished).
  4. Musée de l'Homme, Paris, France, 24 objects (Gauthier 1978, 1980, 1982, unpublished).
  5. Musée du Cinquantenaire, Brussels, Belgium, 16 objects (Gauthier 1979, unpublished).
  6. Ethnographic Museum, Berlin, Germany, 233 objects (Goedicke et al. 1992).
  7. Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City, Mexico, 1 object (Schaft 1999, unpublished).
  8. Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada, 16 objects (Martínez 2003, unpublished).
  9. Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art, 4 objects (Martínez 2003, unpublished).
  10. British Museum, London, England (work in progress).

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